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Delayed more than once in its overland journey from downstate Rantoul, a retired Air Force F-111 Aardvark finally made its way to Waukegan National Airport late last month and now sits in pieces, waiting for the painstaking process of assembly.
If all goes as planned, the pieces — from a 31,000-pound fuselage to a nose cone that looks like a small farm silo when standing on its end — will be refitted in time for a dedication ceremony at the 2016 Wings Over Waukegan Air Show, which is being planned for Sept. 10.
For now, components both large and small are stored in two private hangars after the second of two flatbed-truck deliveries arrived on Dec. 19. Delivery came about a month after a mix of volunteers and professionals first went to Octave Chanute Aerospace Museum to take possession of the 50-year-old jet as the facility cleared out its inventory.
The museum, established in 1994 on the site of an Air Force base that shut down the previous year, was slated for closure due to financial shortfalls as 2015 wound down. The F-111, one of a reported 28 aircraft displayed in Rantoul under a lease arrangement with the Air Force, was offered to the Waukegan Port District under a similar agreement, said Jim Hull, a local pilot and president of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Lake County Chapter 414.
The logistics from there involved taking apart the aircraft and transporting it to Waukegan under restrictions that included traveling only during the day. Workers immediately ran into the challenge of taking off the wings, which were designed to swing backward to allow for supersonic flight.
Looking over the parts on Saturday, Hull said the process of taking off the wings involved removing hydraulic lines and cutting pins as thick as fence posts. A crew from Florida-based All Coast Aircraft Recovery was hired to handle what amounted to major surgery.
“There’s only two companies in the country that do this kind of thing, and they’re ex-military guys, so they know the aircraft,” said Hull, adding that a guiding principle was taking the jet apart in a manner that would allow it to be put back together relatively easily.
The task now is to start preparing not just the structure for display but also the aircraft’s appearance, which is currently a green-and-brown mix that Hull described as “a Cold War paint scheme.” Later this month, work will start on removing the paint in favor of a scheme from Operation Desert Storm, or the last major assignment for the F-111, which first went into service in 1967 during the Vietnam War.
The F-111 was designed as both a fighter-bomber and strategic bomber, and was capable of flying more than twice the speed of sound. The model delivered to Waukegan is not believed to have flown in combat, but information has come forward indicating that it was the first Aardvark to reach Mach 2.5 during test flights.
Plans for permanent outdoor display of the Aardvark just west of the airport’s main terminal have been drawn up by Vernon Hills-based Manhard Consulting. The aircraft is to be mounted on a pole in a nose-up position with its wings tucked back, and decorative elements include a brick-paved plaza in the shape of a military star and flagpoles with concrete monuments for each branch of service.
According to Hull, the overall project is expected to cost $100,000, funded almost entirely through donations that have already started to come in. According to meeting records from the Waukegan Port District board, members voted unanimously in November to contribute $40,756 toward the lease and delivery of the aircraft, though that cost is expected to be reduced to $26,446 after offsetting contributions are in hand.
“We’ve got a significant amount of money raised already and a lot of materials donated,” Hull said. “Between cash and materials, we’ve got about $60,000 so far. It’s not bad for a start.”
The next set of questions involves not only if the aircraft will be restored in time for the air show but if the show will go on at all. The 2015 edition was canceled about two months ahead of time due to reported problems securing a safety zone around Waukegan National for scheduled military aircraft. Information subsequently posted by organizers states that “a re-tooled show” is being eyed for Sept. 10.
Hull said the F-111 will be ready in one form or another, even if a memorial plaza isn’t set to open.
“At the very least,” he said, “we’d like to have this airplane basically finished as far as the paint scheme and ready to roll out to the public in time for the Air Show.”